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August 30, 2010
Volume 88, Number 35
p. 40

Summer Prank Goes Viral, Chemiamigurumi

Scott Bur
The scene: Bur's wife, Amy Jo, surveys the foiled office.
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Javelin Chi

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When Scott K. Bur, a chemistry professor at Gustavus Adolphus College, in Saint Peter, Minn., returned from his summer vacation in July, he knew from past experience that he'd have something interesting waiting for him. Since 2004, Bur's first year at Gustavus, his students have decorated his office while he's away. In the first summer, the theme was pirates. They have also labeled everything—"And I mean everything," Bur says—with a label gun and have decorated the office in a princess theme. But this year, the students outdid themselves by individually wrapping the contents of Bur's office in ALUMINUM FOIL.

Had this been any other summer, that might be the end of the story. Bur would go about his business, unwrapping his office as needed. But this summer was different. In a greenhouse down the hall from Bur's office, Brian O'Brien, another Gustavus chemistry professor, was experiencing a remarkable event: In 1993, he planted several seeds of Amorphophallus titanum, also known as the "corpse flower" because of the bloom's unpleasant odor. The same week that Bur's students foiled his office, Perry the Corpse Flower bloomed for the second time in its life. As thousands of people streamed into the greenhouse to catch a glimpse and a whiff of 7-foot-tall Perry, several couldn't help but notice the glow emanating from the office down the hall.

One reporter, a camera, and the magic of the Internet later, Bur's office was an international phenomenon. "It was a good prank," Bur says. But "the attention is probably more surreal than the prank itself."

"I did two radio talk shows. I was contacted by CBS's 'Inside Edition.' I did two live interviews with BBC Radio 5 and got a phone call from a TV station in New Delhi. A soldier in the Army Corps of Engineers stationed in Afghanistan sent me two copies of the Stars & Stripes that had the picture in it," he recounts.

Bur's take on the attention? "I always hoped that my 15 minutes of fame would be for something I did, not for something done to me," he says. "Maybe a named reaction or something, but not the subject of an admittedly excellent picture."

Javelin Chi

By day, Javelin Chi is a research technologist at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. By night, she furiously CROCHETS MOLECULES to supply a growing demand. Chi creates amigurumi (Japanese for crocheted stuffed toy) molecules—pictured on this page are Mr. Methane and Mr. Ethanol—and sells them in her Etsy store, Prim & Plush (, and at craft fairs.

Chi began crocheting molecules to relieve stress from long days at work. "I made animals of all kinds," she tells Newscripts, but "I guess it was difficult for me to stay away from science, even in my crafting."

In May 2009, Chi opened Prim & Plush. Sales picked up after several customers raved about her molecules online. "I realized that I probably just hit an untapped market," she says.

Chi says she sells a lot of molecules to people looking for gifts for scientists. Recently, she sold several to grad students at the University of Michigan, where they have become companions on their benchtops. "I have followed in their footsteps and brought a molecule to work," she says. "Whenever someone is having a hard time with their experiments, they get the molecule. It's comforting to have a small plush molecule staring back at you."

Kimberly Twambly wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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